Follow Me Gentlemen, June 1989

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Follow Me Gentlemen
  • 1989 June

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Lynden Barber

Elvis Costello is one of those rare types. A singer songwriter with integrity. Even Lynden Barber is forced to overlook the adenoidal voice and judge the guy a true artist.'

The former computer operator peers through his clear-plastic-trademarks, each as wide as VDT screens, and shakes hands. The last time we met, 12 months ago at Sydney’s Sebel Town House, Elvis Costello was dressed in black. The second time around it’s same place, same garb. Even the famed spectacles are as dark as Doc Martens.

The black gives him the appearance of an unconventional preacher; he reminds me of my late godfather, a drinking, chain-smoking, Jaguar-driving man of the cloth. He’d probably enjoy the observation. “Oh yes, I was a comical priest,” he sings on “God’s Comic,” one of his most recent songs, “with a joke for the flock and a hand up your fleece … and lipstick and grease-paint down the front of my dirty dog collar.”

Costello is in Australia to shoot a video for the song “Veronica,” his first single of 1989, with Evan English, director of the Australian movie Ghosts … Of The Civil Dead and previously responsible, as a member of the Rich Kids, for the promo clip for the singer’s “I Wanna Be Loved”. You heard right the first time. All the way to Australia just for a video, though the way this came about was almost accidental, since he agreed to work with English without realising it would mean a trip Down Under. After more years than you care to think about signed to independent UK labels – Stiff, then his own F-Beat and Imp - the Anglo-Irish songwriter has now signed directly to Warner Bros. of Burbank, California.

So why has a corporate giant like Warners signed him? “I’ve no idea, you’ll have to ask them,” he replies, not quite as tetchily as might be imagined. “Why not, I’d say? I think I could have had a hit with any one of my records, I just needed the breaks, and particularly towards the latter years. I don’t think Columbia [who distributed Costello in the States] had much imagination about my records, and I think the last two I gave them were two of the best records I’ve made.

“I was quite happy to be independent in England. If they banned air travel tomorrow and I could not leave England I’d go back to being independent, ‘cos it’s obviously much easier to keep everything in-house.”

He relaxes into the role of interviewee with a seasoned air – polite, brisk, businesslike, speaking unselfconsciously about the music industry or politics before pulling himself up with a comment like, “There are more interesting things to talk about than my philosophy on the business.” Translation: I have a new album to promote so let’s just play the game.

“My publisher rang me this morning and said that an American film company wants to use “Oliver’s Army” in a bio-film of Oliver North,” he volunteers suddenly. “I said “Yes”, not because they’re going to pay me any great amount of money, ‘cos they won’t but because I think it’s hilarious that they would misunderstand the meaning of the song to that degree. I hope the story is like The Battle of the Green Berets, a real gung-ho story …”

While he’s talking, the next interviewer is in the corridor outside sweating with nerves. The reaction isn’t uncommon. Costello may not be popular like Sting or Tracy Chapman, but those who count themselves as fans hold him in an almost super-naturally high regard. The art director of this periodical went intense and manic about the eyes at the mention of his name. Or how about Brat Pack-tress Molly Ringwald on Elvis the Second: “My only real hero I haven’t met”.

I’ve often felt vaguely troubled by my failure to feel the slightest tremor at the thought of Costello while all around are measuring off the end of the Richter scale. To me, Costello seemed to be regarded with an awe out of all proportion to the consistency of his work. His albums I usually found difficult to listen to all the way through: his pinched, nasal voice, sneeringly effective in short bursts, would eventually become too grating, too mannered, for ready digestion. Too much Costello could provoke not mere luke-warm shrugs, but active dislike.

Tied up with this was a distaste for his high standing among the musically unadventurous, those who positively adored his prosaic old pub-rock backing musos such as Steve Nieve and Nick “Basher” Lowe: musical jobsworths, authenticity bores, the “if it wears a cowboy hat, worship it” brigade. Until Blood and Chocolate that is. But more of that later.

For many of those secretly threatened and alienated in 1977 by the gob-shite authoritarianism of punk (whole swathes of people’s record collections became officially redundant overnight), the allied “new-wave” that came flying out of Britain on Elvis Costello’s shirt-tails provided a respectable alternative: anger with craftsmanship, iconoclasm tempered by a respect for tradition. My Aim Is True, his first album, was the Tubular Bells of its day: you could meet someone, go round their house and know they had a copy before you’d even bothered leafing through their records. Singles like ‘Watching The Detectives’, ‘Pump It Up’ and ‘(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea’ were hard for anyone to dislike – signatures indelibly inscribed on the times.

So closely are they identified with the era that now their only resonance is that of curios. The odd song still stands – memorable ballad ‘Alison’, for example – but most have dated badly: too redolent of skinny ties, bug-eyed stares and the mass adoption of street cred. Listening to This Year’s Model in 1989 is like finding an old photo of yourself in flares.

Costello never regained the popularity he achieved in his early days; as the new wave died out, the vacuous New Romantic movement moved into its place; the adoption of the correct pose. Costello grew in stature among those who admired him, but in truth his sound was becoming old-fashioned – abrasive in an age where the lush ‘new pop’ glamour of the Human League and ABC was in the ascendant. Costello was becoming a British Randy Newman – loved by the critics and soundly ignored by the public.

He has maintained his role – a kind of elder statesman of British music (born Declan MacManus, he is actually half-Irish, half-English) to this day. When he speaks, thousands listen, even if they don’t all rush out and buy his records. His sales, however, are said to be respectable; his records sell steadily, rather than making sudden dents in the charts before disappearing.

He has tried his hand at producing – Two-Tone ska band The Specials, Anglo-Irish punk-folk rebels The Pogues, and UK-based Zimbabwe band The Bhundu Boys (the latter session never released) – but he remains, principally, a song-writer.

Often I’ve suspected that Costello’s song-writing is revered for the wrong reasons: not for his frequently inspired cadences and melodic invention, not even for his words, but for the way his words look when written down. For every memorable line like “He thought he was the King of America, where they pour Coca-Cola just like vintage wine”, he seems to have a bagful of smart-ass puns and tricks – many of them not ever readily translatable from the records alone.

I can’t hear ‘Clubland’ on 1981’s Trust without wincing at the memory of the British music paper editor who kept playing the first verse over and over on the office stereo in an attempt at deciphering one of Costello’s more opaquely enunciated stanzas.

Rock critics love word-smithery because it gives them something to analyse. But perhaps the question that should be asked more often is not, “What does this mean?” but “how does this communicate through the experience of the music?” A lyric takes its meaning from the way it is sung. Do we judge Costello by his lyric sheets or by the words as delivered?

The relationship between words and music is something Costello has been looking at more closely on Spike, his first album for Warner Bros. “I’ve paid more attention to the music on this album,” he says. “In the past I’ve paid so much attention to the words that sometimes I get disappointed when the meaning or feeling doesn’t reach people. And it’s simply because I’ve given more credibility to the music, when really I needed to pay more attention to the music as a medium to get the point of the song over.”

The way he has handled it on Spike is through a daringly unprecedented diversity of arrangements, an almost bewilderingly colourful spray of styles. Starting with ‘This Town’ a song that from the startling opening sounds like the Byrds letting loose over the thumping electro-drums of Prince’s ‘When Doves Cry’ (perhaps no surprise when you read the credit and find ex-Byrd Roger McGuinn on a 12-string guitar), it proceeds through arrangements utilising New Orleans jazz players, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Irish folk players, Paul McCartney, Michael Blair and Marc Ribot from Tom Wait’s band, Chrissie Hynde and Allen Toussaint. Not to mention others.

There are a few jarring moments – it’s hard to leap from Ireland to New Orleans without a clash of sensibilities – but generally it works, giving his music a new scope, an added depth. Costello has always shown signs of eclecticism, but always one album at a time – Get Happy (Stax soul-inspired), Almost Blue (his country opus recorded with Billy Sherrill). But never has he shown so much colour and dash, taken so many chances, on a single album.

Spike is not simply a case of genre-hopping. Musicians are used in the weirdest combinations, the Dirty Dozen’s Kirk Joseph taking the bass role with his tuba-like sousaphone on several tracks, while some arrangements enter the realm of deliberate parody: ‘Miss Macbeth’, for example, which lurches like a merry-go-round out of control (the credits for this track list uillean pipes, trombone, tenor and baritone saxophone, electric and acoustic bazouki, glockenspiel, mandolin, Wurlitzer and temple bells).

“The last thing I want to read about this album is that it’s eclectic, ‘cos I don’t think it is.” he says, somewhat perversely. “I took the blinders off that I feel some people have got as to what sounds you can use to portray the songs.

“I didn’t feel I was doing a Paul Simon – “I’ll go off and do a musical travelogue now’. I’m not knocking that, he does it his way, he might do it for his own reasons. It doesn’t suit me.

“I don’t think that’s what this record is about, it’s to do with the songs and choosing the instruments. Even where there’s a song like ‘Pads, Paws & Claws’ [co-written with McCartney], which is like a humorous rock’n’roll song, it could have been played in a stock way, but we kind of played it all backwards and made it more fun, I think. It sounds crazier that way, more like the state of mind that the song’s all about.” Arrangement, Costello feels, is a lost art. “In the old days a producer was like an A&R man. He’d find the artist, find the material, put them in the studio, pick the musicians, so he’d naturally have arrangement skills. Not just Phil Spector, but in the ‘50s; that’s very much the way George Martin was as a producer. And then the cult of the studio took over.

“One of the illuminating things about the CD revolution is how bad ‘60s records sound when they’ve been transferred. The experimentation that might have been interesting when people started getting into effects and everything, they don’t hold up very well. They sacrifice a lot of fidelity.

“Well-transferred recordings of the ‘40s and ‘50s sound a lot richer. The process of production was much more into putting the artist together with the right musicians, the right attitude, the right material, the right atmosphere to do what they did.

“Production now is misnamed, it’s very much a question of people running scared of the next trend in music and in sound. If you read sound engineer magazines, the ones about production, it’s mainly to do with people being afraid not to have the particular output gadget or microphone or studio system. They really mould them [producers and engineers].

“It’s not just this cliched thing that guitar bands say, ‘It’s all machines now and that’s soulless’, because there’s plenty of great pop music made with the principle. This sounds technical, but it’s more to do with fighting your way out of this cocoon of technology, which actually seems to be holding down the excitement and scope.

“The arrangement side of things is pretty much defined by technology. I have nothing against Fairlights or drum machines, but they all should be tools. It’s like the way you can only buy off-the-peg clothes now, you can’t buy any tailored stuff. “

Costello is not alone in his complaints. Recently Brian Eno, that protagonist of studio-as-musical-instrument, has made similar comments about the predictable gloss that covers virtually all records these days. “The whole aspiration of recording is so much like Hollywood”, the chrome-dome told America’s ‘Musician’ magazine at the end of last year. “Everything’s got to be perfectly lit, nicely balanced, nice colour range, full spectrum – all this sort of stupid assumption that recording has something to do with reality.”

One of the problems is not just the technology, though, but the marketing ‘science’ that lies behind it. Costello points to the immense power that the large retail chains like HMV and Virgin have acquired in the UK, where they are virtually dictating the release dates of records and what does or doesn’t break through.

“I don’t want to get further into this, because you get this thing of, ‘He’s bitter ‘cos he hasn’t sold a lot of records’,” he says, defensively. “That isn’t really it. I see it as a disturbing trend. It doesn’t really affect me, because the record will either sell or it won’t.”

The trouble with this kind of talk is that it can easily lead to the kind of fundamentalist anti-technology stance that made many of Costello’s post-new-wave-records sound so dated and out-of-time. Spike, however, is the third in a series of albums that represent a renaissance in his work: his music of the past few years has blossomed in the studio.

Listen to his Best Of compilation, Elvis Costello: The Man; the songs from the early-to-mid-‘80s stand out as his richest. ‘Beyond Belief’, ‘Shipbuilding’, ‘Pills and Soap’, ‘New Amsterdam’: song after song flooded with limpidly wrought changes. The beauty of the songs is remarkable, sophisticated in their strange twists in the way only jazz standards usually manage to be.

Yet listen to the albums these songs come from: the let-down is immediate. Some, like Imperial Bedroom, are a mixture of the commonplace and the outstanding. Others, like Punch The Clock and Goodbye Cruel World, can be ghastly unlistenable: grey, plodding arrangements, forced effects, a generally bland tenor.

Ever since The King Of America, a couple of LPs back, Costello has been more self-assured and consistent, more relaxed when he needs to feel laid-back, more convincingly intense when he feels like letting rip.

Recorded with the aid of T-Bone Burnett and seasoned American players like guitarist James Burton and bassist Jerry Scheff, famed for their work with the other Elvis, King is the album most likely to provoke non-Costello-philes into a reconsideration, a lush, deeply melodic record of country-inflected music for those who never felt they liked country, so light in its touch that it virtually floats off the stereo.

Blood And Chocolate, its follow-up, is equally strong but opposite in atmosphere, Costello re-hiring the Attractions, who this time cast-off their old pub-rock mannerisms and swing the axe with claustrophobic intensity. And neither is it without its tendernesses.

Yet there’s something else that makes Costello still worth watching: he remained fascinating because he’s so unpredictable, so hard to pin down. One moment he’ll happily play the role of reactionary – the last time we spoke he’d lashed out at everything from computer-sampled dance records to independent-label rock bands (“just beatniks in the basement”) – and the next he’ll be tearing apart the New Right.

Costello’s tongue has landed him in serious trouble in the past. The most notorious incident of his career occurred around ‘79/80, when, in a heated argument with members of Stephen Stills’ band, Manassas, in a roadhouse in the States, he reportedly made racist remarks about prominent American black musicians. Enraged, Manassas went to the press; a flurry of “Elvis Costello In Race Controversy” headlines followed.

His first album, My Aim Is True, had won the Rolling Stone critics’ Album Of The Year award in 1977, but the hostility generated by the above put a serious hold on his American career. Costello, incidentally, has always played down the incident, claiming it was exaggerated out of all proportion, his remarks mere facetiousness intended to get up the American musicians’ noses. At that, at least, he was successful.

The last time we had met, Costello had given England a particularly vicious tongue-lashing, calling it “a very tatty, Third World country, a whorehouse”. It wasn’t just the greed encouraged by Thatcher that appalled him, it was the way people seemed to be enjoying getting one over on their neighbours.

At the time he was thinking of making a move, possibly to Ireland. Twelve months later he has bought a house just outside Dublin with his wife Cait, former bass player with The Pogues (though he keeps a flat in London for business purposes). Already it seems that he has merely swapped the frying pan for the fire, however.

“The opportunist, entrepreneurial instinct is very hot there, at the expense of everything that’s worthwhile,” he complains. “It is in England as well, but it’s given a little more window dressing.”

“In Ireland it’s bare-faced, as it is here – the Alan Bonds of this world almost go out of their way to be cruder and more down to earth. It’s what excuses them for being so wealthy: because they speak like a guy you’d meet in the pub, they get away with it. In England, you’d have to dress up that kind of greed.”

Talking to Britons these days, the impression of a national ethos that has become inextricably entangled with venality invariably emerges. It’s not a complaint Australians will make about their own country. Yet could it be simply that being a new-world nation, built on new money, we are not so much immune from the ‘80s zeitgeist as merely less surprised by it?

While Britain, with its centuries-old establishment, still finds the open discussion of wealth a bit shocking? It’s interesting that to an outsider like Costello, Australia’s political scene seems in some ways as bad as contemporary Britain’s.

The scene in John Pilger’s Bicentennial series (which was screened in the UK) depicting Bob Hawke in banquet with Australia’s billionaires shocked Costello so much that it inspired him to write a song about it. The result is This Town, the opener on Spike. The chorus? “Everybody in this town knows you’re a bastard.

Says Costello of the program, “I thought, this is so humiliating, this guy’s supposed to be in the Labor Party, and he’s grovelling to these nauseating …” The appropriate swear-word is left untendered.

“It’s a general malaise, isn’t it,” he continues. “It’s everywhere, it’s in America. I’m sure you’d find it in France or Italy. We always attribute greater style to people when you can’t understand what they’re saying, they appear to be hipper and cooler there, but they’re probably just as bad.”

The slightly depressing aspect of Costello’s indignation is how rare it seems to be becoming. Maybe it’s a case of battle fatigue – even militant one-man band Billy Bragg has gone soft.

Costello’s value is that he is a man who swims against the prevailing currents. As his current album title suggests, he is like a spike in a patch of smooth ground: unpredictable, sharp, provocative, his own man; a leader.

His failure to adapt simple formulas, whether in music or opinions, reflects a rounded consistency of character that is never less than profoundly convincing. Everything about Costello’s character falls into place because he never appears to do anything for false motives. He has the integrity and complexity of an artist.

The adenoidal voice? I think I can live with it.

Tags: God's ComicVeronicaI Wanna Be LovedStiffF-BeatWarner Bros.Columbia RecordsOliver's ArmyStingSteve NieveNick LoweMy Aim Is TruePump It UpWatching The Detectives(I Don't Want To Go To) ChelseaAlisonThis Year's ModelRandy NewmanThe SpecialsThe PoguesClublandTrustSpike...This Town...The ByrdsPrinceRoger McGuinnNew OrleansThe Dirty Dozen Brass BandPaul McCartneyMichael BlairMarc RibotTom WaitsChrissie HyndeAllen ToussaintGet Happy!!Almost BlueBilly SherrillKirk JosephMiss MacbethPaul SimonPads, Paws And ClawsPhil SpectorGeorge MartinBrian EnoElvis Costello: The ManBeyond BeliefShipbuildingPills And SoapNew AmsterdamImperial BedroomPunch The ClockGoodbye Cruel WorldKing Of AmericaT-Bone BurnettJames BurtonJerry ScheffBlood & ChocolateStephen StillsColumbus IncidentCait O'RiordanBilly Bragg


Follow Me Gentlemen, No. 22, June - August 1989

Lynden Barber interviews Elvis Costello.


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Page scans - thanks to Richard Sheehan
Photos credit: Gary Heery


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